All posts by Richard

The Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee #GVRAT1000k

Before lockdown I never thought I’d do a virtual race.  I mean why pay for the privilege of recording your mileage/time on a random website in return for a finishers medal that I would just put in the drawer with all the other finisher’s medals I have received over the years. Virtual races seem to have become popular in recent years and for many people they are actually a great pathway to ‘real’ races. But not for me.  For a start, as an accountant, why would I want to pay for something that I can do for free?  I pay to do real races, but that is different. Or at least that is what I thought.

That was until Covid-19 came along and all races worldwide were cancelled.

I found myself competing in my first virtual race, the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, in early April and not long after that I heard about a virtual race across Tennessee which would be starting on 1st May.  Runners and walkers would have four months (May through August) to complete 1,022km (635 miles) from the bottom left corner of Tennessee and finishing to the top right corner.  For those who wanted a bigger challenge, there was the option of the double crossing of Tennessee within the same time period.

GVRAT map

The race was being organised by the famous Lazarus Lake, founder of events including the Barkley Marathons and Big’s Backyard Ultra.  He initially thought that a couple hundred runners might be interested in virtually crossing Tennessee.  Little did he know that over 19,000 runners and walkers (including me) would toe the virtual start line and the event would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help feed the homeless people of Tennessee.

With no actual races on the horizon I decided to enter the double GVRAT – there and back – rationalising that walking approximately 500km per month for four months would be great training for when races do finally resume after lockdown (I’m still hopeful that we will have the opportunity to do a real race before the end of 2020).  2,000km would give me about 50% of my normal annual mileage in the space of four months, and recording my daily mileage and watching my runner icon slowly move across a map of Tennessee would give me the motivation to keep going.  I’m the sort of person that needs a race goal to motivate myself to train, and with no upcoming races I wasn’t sure how motivated I’d be during the summer.

Of course, staying healthy and social distancing during the Covid-19 crisis was always going to be number one priority.

The race:

The race started at midnight on the 30th April local time.  This meant it started in New Zealand first and for us in England it started about 11 hours later, and for those in the US, even later.  But when the race finishes on 31st August, it also finishes at midnight, so everyone has the same amount of time to complete the distance unless they happen to change time zones.

Because of this it meant that race times would only be recorded in full days but that didn’t stop a few people starting their race immediately after midnight in their local time, and the first people to finish treated the race as if it was a real race, running as much mileage as they possibly could each day.  The first person to finish the race took just 12 days!

For me, my initial aim was to take eight weeks for the first 1,000km (actually 1,022km) across Tennessee and then eight weeks for the return journey, and treat the event as high mileage training.  I also had a full time job to fit the race around.

GVRAT week 1 progress map
GVRAT week 1 progress

The race started on Friday 1st May and I started at 5am with a 37km walk before work.  By the end of week one though, I had completed 162km (101 miles).  A 100 mile training week. The last time I had walked 100 miles in a week that didn’t include a race of 100 miles or longer was in 2014!  I have never been a high mileage athlete when it comes to training, but this race was enticing me to walk farther than I normally would, and also farther than the 125km weekly average I had planned for the race.

But surely this was a one-off.  My weekly distances would now settle back to my required average of through the summer. Just enough weekly mileage to get me through 2,000km in four months.

GVRAT progress map week 2
GVRAT week 2 progress

Week 2 – another 100 mile week. Another great week of training.  After just two weeks I’d completed just under one third of the one-way journey across Tennessee and I was in 304th position out of 19,000 athletes.  I’d started checking the online results on a daily basis to check my placing and had even started graphing my daily mileage and analysing how my average daily mileage since 1st May correlated to my current position in the race.

GVRAT progress map week 3
GVRAT progress week 3

In week 3 I purposefully reduced my mileage as I had never walked back to back 100 mile weeks and I was concerned that a third 100 mile week could bring on an injury.  I was purposefully keeping my average speed to a above 8 minutes per kilometer (12:50 per mile) due to my shin injury from the Thames Ring 250 last year but in the first two weeks of May I had already walked further than my average monthly mileage for the first four months of the year.  Even so, at 133km week 3 was still longer than any other training week (non-race week) in over a year!

By the end of week 3 I had dropped to 448th place and with a rest day for day 22 I dropped another 100 places.  I started to think about ‘racing’ through to the finish. Lockdown restrictions in England were being reduced slightly and I was able to walk farther and farther away from home.

GVRAT progress map week 4
GVRAT progress week 4

The 23rd, 24th and 25th May was a long weekend in the UK so I walked 165km in three days, starting between 4 and 5 each morning. Week 4 mileage was 198km (123 miles) which coincidentally was the same distance I had completed in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra.  I was now just short of two thirds through the one-way trip across Tennessee and started thinking seriously about two more 100 mile weeks to finish in 6 weeks total – or at least make it to the half-way turnaround for the double crossing.

One of the things I really enjoy about ‘real’ ultramarathon races is walking through the night.  There is something special about walking huge distances while everyone around you is asleep, and I was missing this.  So the following weekend I decided to do an overnight walk through London.  It turned out to be a 104km walk starting at 10pm on the Saturday night, walking from home up through London and through towards Stratford (where the 2012 Olympics were) and then across the top of London before heading back home.

I started using a website called CityStrides a while ago which shows streets you’ve walked previously on a live map so that you can identify which streets you haven’t been on previously.  I’ve spent the last six years exploring areas all around greater London and the website makes it easy to see whether you have ‘been here before’ – although quiet often I will recognise a street that I might have walked down months or even years ago.

The website shows how many completed streets you have walked/run along and has a leaderboard for different cities around the world as well as showing the percentage of each city/borough you have completed.  So in a way, it is a little like a virtual race in its own right. After each walk the website would show how many new streets I had walked.  During the whole GVRAT event I completed 902 new streets including 161 new streets during the 104km overnight walk.

Citystrides 1st May to 10th June
Citystrides 1st May to 10th June
GVRAT progress map week 5
GVRAT progress week 5

Week 5 mileage ended up at 173km and I was now in 368th place with just under 200km to go.  One more big week to get to the finish.

The race had started on a Friday meaning that each of the above weeks are Friday through to Thursday.  Week 6 started with a rest day, my ninth rest day since 1st May.  Over the weekend I walked 32km and 52km on the Saturday and Sunday respectively leaving just 112km to finish the race and five days to do so if I wanted to complete the race in six weeks.

Throughout the race I had been working fulltime from home which meant fitting the race around work hours.  All of my rest days had been on workdays during which I would work longer hours so that I could work shorter hours on the days I wanted to walk long.  I decided to have a tenth rest day on the Monday leaving me three days to walk 20km, 30km and then 62km to finish on the Thursday.  The plan was that the Tuesday and Wednesday walks would be before work and I would finish work early (3pm’ish) in order to get the final 62km completed before midnight on Thursday, day 42.

After the Monday rest day the results showed me as being in 398th place.  20km on Tuesday and I slipped to 401st place. I now had 92km to finish the race and decided that I would do all of that on Wednesday, day 41 of the race.

The only problem was that Wednesday was a workday and I had several meetings to attend (virtually) with the first starting at 9:30am and the last finishing at 3pm.  So it would be a short workday sandwiched in between a 35km morning walk starting just after 4:30am and a final 57km after work.

The 35km went fine.  I had to message my manager just before 9:30am to tell her I would be a couple minutes late for our meeting, but that was fine.  I had woken at 4am and had breakfast before my walk and I had an early lunch straight after my 9:30 meeting. A second lunch a couple hours later before an early dinner straight after my workday finished at 3pm, and then I was off out the door again.

For the whole of the last 41 days I had managed to avoid rain when training.  It had tried to rain on the 1st May during my first walk of the race, and I had carried my jacket on one other day, but other than that, the weather had been perfect.  Now, at 3:45pm as I was preparing to head out for my final walk of the race, the heavens opened, and it started raining.  But this wasn’t going to stop me.  I had set my mind to completing this race today and I needed 57km before midnight.  My average pace for the whole 41 days had been a shade over 8 minutes per kilometer so if I left home before 4pm and maintained that same pace then I would finish the race before midnight, before the end of day 41.

GVRAT progress map week 6
GVRAT progress week 6

And that’s what happened – I completed the 57th kilometer at about 11:45pm and then walked one last kilometer, crossing over the Teddington footbridge across the River Thames, the same bridge I had walked over at the start of the race on the morning of the 1st May, and back to my home where I recorded my daily mileage for the last time.

GVRAT finishers selfie
GVRAT finishers selfie

Or at least the last time for the one-way race across Tennessee.  There is still the return journey to do.

I finished 305th and took 137 hours to complete the 1,022km.  I did 32 walks at an average of 32km (20 miles) each, in 31 days with 10 rest days.  Great high mileage training.  The virtual race is giving me what I wanted from it.

Photos:

During the last 41 days I’ve taken a few photos as I walked the streets of South West London, London and North London.  These are some of my favourites:

Teddington Lock
5am on day 1, walking across the footbridge at Teddington Lock less than 1km into the 1,022km race
M3 motoway during lockdown 3rd May 2020
The M3 motorway during lockdown on 3rd May. Not a car in sight.
Wentworth
One of the private roads in the Wentworth golf course resort
M25 motoway during lockdown 3rd May 2020
The M25 motoway during lockdown 3rd May 2020
River Thames early morning 8th May 2020
River Thames early morning 8th May 2020
Deer in Richmond Park 12th May 2020
Deer in Richmond Park 12th May 2020
Crossing London Bridge with the Shard in the background
Crossing London Bridge with the Shard in the background – 16th May 2020
Tower Bridge and the HMS Belfast
Tower Bridge and the HMS Belfast – 16th May 2020
Pall Mall during lockdown - 16th May 2020
Pall Mall during lockdown – 16th May 2020 – hardly a tourist in sight
Buckingham Palace during lockdown - 16th May 2020
Buckingham Palace during lockdown – 16th May 2020 – hardly a tourist in sight
Walk like a penquin
Walk like a penguin – early morning walk on 21st May
Abbey Road Studios London
Abbey Road Studios
Abbey Road pedestrian crossing London
Abbey Road pedestrian crossing. The Beetles walked across it in the 60’s and I walked across it on the 23rd May 2020. Abbey road Studios are in the background.
View of London from Epson Racecourse
View of London (15 miles away) from Epson Racecourse – 24th May
Homeless in Notting Hill
Homeless in Notting Hill – 31st May
London from Wimbledon
London from Wimbledon – 6th June
Where I walked 1st May to 10th June - GVRAT
Where I walked 1st May to 10th June – 1.023km in South West London plus a small amount of North London
GVRAT graph place versus daily mileage
GVRAT graph place versus daily mileage – average of 15.5 miles per day for 41 days, finishing in 305th place

 

 

And one last screenshot.  I posted on facebook in the GVRAT facebook group after I finished the race.  This was by far my favourite comment, and also one of the reasons I write these race reports.

GVRAT Facebook feedback

 

It’s now time to head back to the start in order to complete the double crossing!

 

Edit:

I completed the return crossing of Tennessee on 4th August when I completed a 219 mile circumnavigation of Surrey, UK.

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra – it’s easy until it isn’t

It’s mid March 2020.  The world is suffering the impact of the Covid-19 virus and most sporting events around the world have been cancelled. The world is in lockdown with restrictions over where people can go, whether they can go to work, whether they can even leave their own homes.

I’m on facebook and I read about plans for a virtual Backyard Ultra race (the Quarantine Backyard Ultra) to be held during the first weekend of April.  The Backyard Ultra races, also known as Last One Standing, are elimination races in which all competitors run/walk 4.17 miles (6.7km) in an hour, every hour, until there is only one person left.  The 4.17 mile distance is 100 miles divided by 24 hours, so 100 miles a day until only one person is left.  The first Backyard Ultra was held in 2011 and there are now well over 100 races of this type worldwide with the ‘world championship’ being held in October every year on the original course in Big’s backyard in Tennessee – Big being the name of the dog owned by race founder Lazarus Lake.

I didn’t need to think about it.  I signed up for the race immediately.  The idea for the virtual race was that competitors would run (or in my case, walk) their own 4.17 mile laps starting and finishing each lap at their own homes, or compete on treadmills inside their own homes.  Everyone would be connected via the internet using Zoom, so that we could check in at the end of each lap and the race organisers could monitor progress.

My plan was to walk a loop on the roads between Kingston and Richmond in south west London but that changed on Monday 23rd March when the UK government announced new lockdown restrictions which included only being allowed out of your house for one exercise per day.  Leaving my house 24 times a day might be viewed as stretching the rules a little, but for a day or two I considered the possibility of using my car as my race checkpoint.  My car is parked on the street, so if I left the house once only, and only returned to the car rather than the house between each lap, that would be OK, wouldn’t it?

Went for a second walk

With the panic about the lockdown and rumours that neighbours had started reporting other neighbours to the police because they were exercising multiple times a day, I started to have second thoughts and started searching the internet for a second-hand treadmill.  I looked for a new one but with most shops closed I couldn’t find one that could be delivered in time for the race.

I was in luck though, finding a £200 treadmill for sale just a couple miles away.  The treadmill was a bit bigger that I would have liked, for our small house, and had to be dismantled to get it up our stairs and into the living room.  It was also a bit noisier than my family would have liked and when I first tested it I discovered that the side of the living room that I positioned it in was immediately above the bedroom of the people living downstairs.  Not a good start.

Too late to give up now though.  I found a rubber pad that one of our sons had bought to go underneath his exercise bike and I moved the treadmill to the other side of the living room, so as not to be above the downstairs bedroom.  I also put a cupboard unit in between the treadmill and the rest of the living room to hopefully reduce the noise level.  Everyone seemed reasonably happy.

And I decided to use the race as an opportunity to raise some money for the Kingston Hospital Charity – the charity that supports our local hospital.

The race:

By race day, over 2,400 people from 53 countries had entered the race which was organised by Personal Peak Endurance in Alberta, Canada.  The race started at 7am their time which was 2pm Saturday afternoon in the UK.  With entrants from all over the world, the race was starting at different times for different people.  Personally, for ultramarathons I have always preferred a mid-morning start as that means I don’t need to wake up too early if I’ve struggled to get to sleep the night before the race (a common problem) and I’m not awake for too long before the race start.  An afternoon race start can mean that by the time we get to 24 hours into the race, I’ve been awake 32 hours or longer.  Obviously, the longer you’ve been awake, the tired you get, so the earlier the start time, the better.  For this race, having woken up at 6am and being unable to get back to sleep, I had already been awake for 8 hours by the time we started.

The race would be different for everyone depending on the time of day that they were starting, their restrictions on movement outside their own house, the weather (if competing outside), etc.  So we all had to take what we were given.

‘Living Room Guy’, as he became known on one of the YouTube channels where the race was been streamed, was running a 30 meter lap in his living room – over 50 laps per hour!

Others were running in their own gardens. One guy was running around tables in what was apparently the restaurant in an Ikea. Many were running on treadmills, and some were on roads and trails near their own homes.  Some were running in snow, others in the heat.  Different conditions for everyone.

My target for the race was 48 hours, but in order to do that I would need to smash my 48 hour best distance by a whole marathon (current best being the 173 miles/278km I walked when winning the Royan 48 hour race in France, in October 2018 – which incidentally was the last time I had a decent race result).  My ‘B’ goal was to beat the 36 hours I achieved when I won Last One Standing England in 2018, and I didn’t really have a ‘C’ goal – maybe just to go further than I had ever gone on a treadmill previously (a marathon which I ran in 2010).

My plan was to just go through the motions for the first 24 hours (100 miles) and then the real race would begin.  That’s not to say that 100 miles in 24 hours is easy, but it is reasonably easy to keep moving for 24 hours before tiredness becomes a factor and I would have been extremely disappointed to be eliminated during day 1.

As it happened, the first 24 hours was relatively easy.  My fastest ‘lap’ was 52:57 in lap 6 when I needed a bit of time between laps for a change of shoes, and my slowest lap was 57:50 in lap 13 when having an ‘easy’ lap.  Total walking time for the first 100 miles was 22 hours and 8 minutes meaning that I had 1 hour and 52 minutes rest during that time.  An average lap time of 55:21.

There is one of the big differences between me walking and everyone else running.  Most of the runners were averaging 45 minutes per lap, or faster, and therefore had plenty of time for breaks.  If I needed a break, for a toilet stop or to change shoes, I needed to purposefully walk faster during my lap to give me the time I needed.  Also, if a runner started to slow down as the race wore on, they had a lot more time to play with than I did.

From the start of the race I got into a three lap pattern of an easy lap followed by a slightly harder lap and a quick journey upstairs to the toilet, and then a second faster lap to give me time to change shoes.  And then repeat.  I wanted to change shoes every three hours because the treadmill doesn’t give you any variation in camber and therefore your foot strike is the same every single step.  This could cause injury and I didn’t want to be eliminated from this race because of injury.  I also quickly realised that, unlike other races, I had to plan my toilet breaks for between laps rather than just when I needed to go.  In a normal race, I don’t need to plan toilet breaks and just stop when I need to.  This wouldn’t be possible mid-lap.

Of the 2,400 entrants, 1,400 started the race.  The race was free to enter so I’m sure that the organisers were expecting a big DNS percentage.  The quality of the field was incredible however, with 5 or more athletes who had completed more than 60 hours in Backyard ultras before, as well as a number of national/world record holders for various ultramarathon distances.  To my knowledge, there was only one other walker entered, Scott Burton from Canada.  Scott, like myself, competes in multi-day races but Scott hasn’t yet completed 100 miles in under 24 hours so wasn’t expecting to do more than a few hours in this race.  Yolanda Holder, the women’s world record holder for the 6 day racewalking event was also entered, but she decided not to start.

The number of DNF’s started to grow right from the first few hours and by 24 hours there were less than 80 of us still in the race.  Most of the top seeds were still there, but there had been some surprises with people like World Champion Maggie Guterl and US 6 day (running) record holder, Joe Fejes, both dropping out in the first 12 hours. Courtney Dauwalter, the women’s world record holder for the Backyard ultra (67 hours) also dropped at 24 hours.

I started to think that there may be a chance of getting on to the elite YouTube feed which was live-streaming the top 20 competitors, but there was still a long way to go before the race would get down to that number of competitors.

At about 20 hours I sent a facebook message to John Muskett, who maintains the New Zealand ultramarathon records, to ask whether there are any NZ records recorded for ultra-distance treadmill achievements.  He replied to say that to his knowledge, no New Zealander had completed 100 miles on a treadmill.

So when I reached 100 miles after 23 hours, 55 minutes and 54 seconds of elapsed time, I set an unofficial New Zealand 100 mile (and 24 hour) treadmill record to go with my NZ ultra-distance race walking records and my M50 48 hour ‘running’ record.  Unfortunately, I can’t claim the record as treadmill records have to be run on calibrated treadmills and for all we know, the 4.17 miles I was completing each hour could have only been 4.1 miles, or it could have been 4.2.  We will never know.

I was still feeling extremely good but while changing my shoes at the end of lap 24 we noticed a burning smell coming from the treadmill.  We didn’t have time to investigate so I decided to put in a fast lap to give us (my son, Jarrad and wife, Ruth) time to investigate and do some urgent treadmill maintenance.  I walked hard, too hard perhaps, completing the lap in 54:08 – my fastest since lap 12 – and then let Jarrad and Ruth do their thing while I sat down for a much needed rest.  The belt on the treadmill had moved to the right and was rubbing against the side of the treadmill, and any lubricant that may have been under the belt was long gone.  They adjusted the belt and applied some lube but that was all they had time for.  The smell was most probably coming from the motor which was overheating.

When I started lap 26 Jarrad went online and order a 12 inch fan from Argos and then drove down to the local Sainsbury/Argos store to collect it.  I was still feeling good and walked an easy 58:08 lap – my slowest to date, but I was completely under control and still feeling good.

I walked faster on lap 28 so that I would have time for a toilet break at the end of the lap but suffered for that ‘luxury’ when I only barely managed to finish the next lap (lap 29) in 58:20, my slowest lap time of the race and the first one in which I had struggled.

For a while during lap 29 I didn’t think I would finish within the 60 minute time limit.  Up until now, walking on a treadmill had been easy, maybe easier than a normal outdoor race.  I had a pacing chart taped to the treadmill dashboard which told me what time I would finish the lap based on my time through each kilometre, and also my minutes per kilometre based on the speed that the treadmill was currently set to.  All I needed to do was make my legs walk at whatever pace I told the treadmill to run at.  Easy.

Quarantine Backyard Ultra - pacing chart

I had also constantly changed the speed and incline of the treadmill every few minutes during the previous 29 hours to try and replicate an outdoor walk where the slight elevation change, wind direction, etc, means that you are never walking exactly the same speed and using exactly the same muscles for too long.

Bad patches come and go during ultra-distance races.  You can feel good and then suddenly you wonder how you will be able to complete the next mile.  I’ve done races where I’ve struggled through a bad patch for 3, 4, 5 or more hours, and then suddenly come right again.  The difference though, was that this race didn’t allow for bad patches.  At least not for me as a walker where a bad patch could easily mean elimination by failing to finish the lap within an hour.  For the runners who were still averaging 45 minute laps, they had plenty of time up their sleeves and losing 5 or 10 minutes per lap due to a bad patch wouldn’t be the end of their race.

As it happened, lap 30 was the end though.  Mentally, I was totally stuffed.  I was struggling to stay on the treadmill.  7km per hour was too fast and I was almost falling off the back.  6.9km per hour was now too slow due to me losing a bit of time by walking too slow at the start.  It was looking like I would struggle to finish the lap in under 60 minutes, although still possible if I could push through the mental pain in the last 10-15 minutes.

But then, at 3.3km into the lap, the treadmill suddenly stopped and I fell forward into the dashboard.  Fortunately, because I was struggling so much, both Jarrad and Ruth were standing beside the treadmill and Jarrad immediately unplugged the treadmill.

My race was over.  With hindsight, I could have immediately headed outside to walk another 3.4km, and complete the lap, but I wasn’t thinking clearly mentally, and under the UK lockdown rules, that would have still had to be the end of my race as we are only allowed outside to exercise once a day.  I wish I had done that though, as it would have been nice to finish on round figures – 30 hours and 200km – but overall, I’m happy with my result.

Some other thoughts about the race:

On a positive side,

  • No need to travel to/from the race
    Many of my races are in France or other European countries, especially the race-walking races, and can take 8 or more hours travel in each direction. For this race, I simply walked over to the corner of my living room and got on the treadmill.
  • Climate controlled
    Being indoors, I didn’t need to worry about the weather. No need to put warmer clothes on at night or suffer in the heat of the day.  No wind, rain, or any other uncontrollable conditions either.
  • Support crew
    I very rarely have a support crew in my races – other than the six day races I’ve done – but this time I had a dedicated (some might say ‘trapped’) support crew only meters away for the whole race.
  • No need to carry food
    The majority of the races I’ve done have required us to carry food, as well as other equipment, because it could be anything between 10 and 25 miles between checkpoints. For this race, I had food within arms reach the whole of the race, and a fridge just behind me.
    Even in multi-lap races, I can usually only eat every 2-4km but not in this race.
  • No need for a head torch
    When it got dark, we just turned on the lights. No need for a head torch or for a charger to charge the head torch in between uses.
  • No need for portable chargers
    I had two computers within reach all the time – one for the video feed connecting me to race HQ, and one which I used for watching the YouTube feed of the race, posting updates on social media, watching the donations to my fundraising rolling in, etc.
    For most races I need to take portal USB chargers to keep my GPS watch and phone charged, and for point to point races I need to carry those USB chargers with me.
  • Speed controlled by my mind, not my body
    For most of the race, I used my mind to control my speed – in that I worked out what pace I needed to walk and set the treadmill speed to the required setting. My legs then had to walk at that required pace and I had a dashboard in front of me which was constantly telling me if I was walking to target.  For a normal outdoor race, I get feedback from my watch every kilometre, but it is very easy to drift off pace without noticing until it is too late.

They are the positives that I took from the experience.  On the downside,

  • Toilet brakes needed to be planned
    In a normal race, you just take a toilet break when you need it, but in this race it had to be planned for between laps. If I needed to go to the toilet mid-lap, that wouldn’t be an option.  In some races I have found that as my body starts t deteriorate after 40+ hours, I might need to pee every 10-20 minutes.  I didn’t get that far in this race but toilet breaks at intervals less than an hour (a lap) wouldn’t have been possible.
    Also, our toilet is upstairs, so when I did need to go, I had to walk up and then back down the stairs.  Walking down stairs is not easy after 20+ hours on your feet.
  • Regular change of shoes required
    Because of the lack of variation in terrain, I decided to change my shoes every 3 hours. Normally I don’t change my shoes in any race shorter than 40’ish hours.
    Once my feet started to blister changing shoes also became painful and in order to make time for changing shoes I had to walk a faster lap than I would have liked.
  • Uneven pace
    In order to make time for toilet breaks and shoe changes, I had to walk fast laps two out of every three. Normally, in a race of any distance, you are best to try and maintain a steady pace.
  • Risk of mechanical failure
    I always knew that there would be a possibility of a treadmill failure. After buying the second-hand treadmill we purchased some silicon lubricant and did some basic maintenance to ensure that the treadmill would survive the race.  The manual said that we would need to apply more lubricant every 40 hours, and we planned for that.  But I have since learned that the 40 hours is based on standard use of an hour a day, and that gyms lube their treadmills every day.  We should have been applying lube every 8 hours and should also have had a fan pointing at the motor from the start to keep it from overheating.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t have missed this race for the world.  I loved it.  Out of the 1,400 starters, 33 started lap 30 and by lap 32 there were only 18 runners left – I was so close to the top 20 in a high class field.

And, my fundraising has raised £1,432 (plus gift aid) for the Kingston Hospital Charity – with at least another £70 promised in donations.

I’m writing this on the Monday evening after the race.  At the time of writing, there are still two incredible athletes battling it out.  Mike Wardian, one of the best ultra distance runners on the planet, and Radek Brunner, who has finished in the top 3 in the last 4 Spartathons have been alone in this race since the beginning of hour 47.  They are still both completing their laps in the 40-45 minute range.  This race could go for many more hours yet!

And by the way, whilst Mike is running outdoors in America, Radek is on a treadmill in the Czech Republic.  I’m rooting for ‘treadmill man’!

Some photos:

Quarantine Backyard Ultra - my setup
My treadmill setup
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - pizza
Pizza for dinner
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - early on
Going in to night 1 and feeling good
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - my view
15 hours done
Quarantine Backyard Ultra -near finish
Not looking so good now
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - after finish
Finished!

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra podcast story:

Quarantine Backyard Ultra podcastThis podcast is the story of that race and features a couple snippets from interviews with me before and after the race.

The 15th Greek Ultramarathon Festival – 48 hour race

Last month I visited Athens, Greece for the first time.  I saw all the main sightseeing attractions – The Acropolis, the Parthenon temple, The Acropolis Museum, along with the National Archaeological Museum and the Panathenaic Stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

I wasn’t there for sightseeing. I was in Athens to compete in the 48 hour race which was just one of the many ultra-distance races that were a part of the 15th Greek Ultramarathon Festival.  Other events that made up the ultramarathon festival included a 24 hour race, 72 hours race and 6 day race which were all happening at the same time as my race, and then the following week the really long races started with a 1,000 mile race, a 2,000 kilometre race and also a 5,000 kilometre race which has a two month time limit!

And all these races are held on a 1 kilometre circuit – 500 meters out, and 500 meters back – at the old Athens airport which was abandoned in 2001 when the new airport was opened ahead of the 2004 Olympics.  Headquarters for the race were in the semi-abandoned Basketball stadium beside the old airport which was used for the 2004  Athens Olympics.  Given that some of the doors inside the stadium still had signs stuck to them that referred to the 2019 edition of the ultramarathon festival, I suspect that the stadium is now only used once a year – for the ultramarathon festival.

15th Greek Ultramarathon Festival

My race:

This was going to be my first serious race since my shin injury and subsequent health problems at the Thames Ring 250 in June 2019.  I had attempted to complete the Lon Las Ultra in Wales in October, but I always treated that as an adventure rather than a race.  But with my shin injury almost completely heeled I thought I could walk at least 300km in the space of 48 hours, so that was my goal.

My only other 48 hour race was the Royan 48 hour race in October 2018.  In that race we had 24 hours of summer followed by 24 hours of winter, complete with horizontal rain and I had covered 278km (161km on day one and 117km on day two) and that was on a course with a total of 500 U turns in the space of 48 hours, so I was confident that on a better course, and in better conditions, 300km was definitely within my capability, even if I probably wasn’t as fit as I was in 2018.

The race started at 6pm on Friday 10th January.  When I booked my flights I decided that the best option was to fly over on the Thursday afternoon/evening – departing Stansted at 6:45pm – and I booked a cheap AirBnB for both the Thursday night and Friday night figuring that that would enable me to sleep as long as I wanted without having to be out of my accommodation by the usual checkout time of 11am on the Friday morning.

The idea kind of worked.  The flight landed in Athens a little before midnight but it was almost 2am by the time I reached my accommodation – which was about 1km away from the race venue.  I got a solid 10 hours sleep which was good – much better than my normal pre-race sleep.  Arriving at the accommodation late meant I was tired and I was able to fall asleep pretty much immediately, whereas often I have problems getting to sleep the night before a race, tossing and turning, thinking about the race.  And I don’t think I have ever had 10 hours sleep the night before a race, so I was happy with that.

On waking I walked down to the race venue to register and set myself up, and then walked 3km to McDonalds for my traditional last pre-race meal, got some supplies (fruit, coke, etc)  from the supermarket across the road, and walked back to the race venue.

This was my only sightseeing – the front of the abandoned airport:

The old Athens airport
The old Athens airport

As usual for a running race, I was the only walker in the race.  There were 23 of us competing in the 48 hour race, 6 in the six day race which started at the same time as us, and 6 in the 72 hour race which started a couple hours before our race.  The 24 hour race started the following afternoon and had 94 entries.  In total there were competitors from 34 countries – a truly international event.

The race course itself started inside the basketball stadium where each lap started and finished.  We walked half a lap around the inside of the stadium on a concrete floor – the original basketball court having been removed some time after the Olympics – before heading out into the evening air.

I actually felt reasonably good for the first 14 hours, and it wasn’t until mid-morning on Friday that I realised that the ‘out’ section of the out-and-back course was actually slightly uphill.  The turnaround point at the far end was about five meters higher than the basketball stadium and whilst this didn’t make any difference in the early stages, once I began to tired I started to struggle mentally with this ‘hilly’ 😊 course.

I struggled all day Friday but at around 3pm (21 hours) I thought I was coming right, only to have a huge mental crash.  At 21 hours I had covered 142 kilometres but it took me another five hours to cover the next 19 kilometres through to the 100 mile (161km) mark.

I started the race intending to walk the full 48 hours without a sleep, and only a few short  sit-down breaks, but the short breaks were not working and upon reaching 100 miles (my 28th time walking 100 miles or further) I decided to have a sleep.  I was really struggling and just needed to get away from the course and hopefully I would wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go again.

I thought I had read on the race website that camp stretchers were supplied for athletes, but I hadn’t paid too much attention as I didn’t intend to sleep.  When I checked out the sleeping areas before race start, it turned out that we were supposed to have brought our own camp stretcher or mattress and we were sleeping in one of the warm-up basketball courts within the complex.  Note to worry, I thought, I won’t be sleeping.

So now that I needed some sleep I found something that was slightly padded and turned that in to my bed, and then proceeded to have an uncomfortable 5 1/2 hours sleep before eventually getting up to continue the race.

My bed at the Greek Ultramarathon Festival
My bed!

On resuming the race at around 1:30am on Saturday morning I proceeded to just go through the motions for the next 8 1/2 hours until I decided to have another short sleep.  I was not enjoying myself but I figured that there was no point in dropping out of the race.  I had three options: 1) drop out and watch the rest of the race, 2) drop out and go sightseeing – I didn’t feel like doing that, or 3) continue walking laps of the course.  Regardless of what I did, my flight home would be leaving at the same time on Monday, and time wasn’t going to pass any faster if I dropped out, so I decided to continue.

To cut a long story short, I didn’t enjoy it, but I continued with a few sit-down rests along the way, and I eventually finished with a disappointing 211km in 48 hours.  Given that I have previously completed 205km in 28 hours (Roubaix in 2015), to only manage 6km further in 48 hours was a huge disappointment, but at the same time, at least I didn’t drop out.

The Greek Ultramarathon Festival:

One of the reasons I went to Athens was to check out the course, the race organisation, accommodation, food, etc, in case I decided to take the opportunity to do one of the longer races in the future.  But I have to say, if I am ever going to do a really long race, it is unlikely to be at the Greek Ultramarathon Festival.

It is possible that my thoughts on this are tainted by the fact that I had a disappointing race, but I think I would go mad (some might say I’m already mad) going up and down the 500 meters out, 500 meters back course for any more than 48 hours.  There is nothing to see other than the other competitors and concrete, and being a self-confessed picky eater, I don’t think I could survive on the food provided by the race organisers for 6 days or longer.

On night one we were given pasta which was good and the only other meal I remember being offered was something Greek (I can’t remember what).  At the end of each lap we passed a table that had some food on it, but this was mainly cut up apples and biscuits.  There may have been a few other items but not really a huge amount of variety.  I think at one stage we may also have had yogurt or custard too.  I mainly fueled off my own food, but that wouldn’t be possible in a multi-day race without a support crew.  The race organisers were great though, and I would consider going back for another attempt at the 48 hour race at some stage.

And the photos below will give you an idea of what the course looked like.

Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
From the start of the lap looking along the first side of the basketball court. Athlete’s food tables and support crews were on the left along all sides of the ‘track’.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Turn left. My table was just around the corner – with the NZ silver fern flag on the end. Easy to access on my way out of the gym.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
At the end of the second side of the gym we turn right through the foyer and out to the open air.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And we are outside. Note the whiter concrete where we have been walking/running. This is from the concrete dust that we have carried outside on our shoes from within the gym. By the end of the race, everything in the gym was covered in a thin layer of concrete dust.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And now we start the slightly uphill ‘out’ section of the out and back course.  The whole course was flood lit and night.  Visibility was never a problem.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
After a slight turn to the left we continue towards the turnaround.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And we continue up towards the turnaround.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
The turnaround was a large circle identified by a series of posts. At the very top there was a timing map to ensure that we walked/ran to the far end of the course.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And then we head back down the course. The slight change in gradient was noticeable the longer the race went on and I found that my pace would increase slightly on the ‘downhill’. The building in the top left of the photo is one of the airport terminals.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Continuing down the course back towards the basketball gym and we follow the fence line for a while. In the last few hours when I was really tired I walked too close to the fence occasionally and got caught on loose wires on the fence.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
The basketball court comes in to view as were turn slightly towards the right.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Almost back to the gym.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Heading towards the gym. Note the portaloos by the entrance to the gym. There were also toilets inside the entrance to the gym.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Back through the foyer. Toilets on the right and down one of teh hallways to the right was the room where I slept.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Back on to the basketball court, heading towards the race organisers food table.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
At the end before the final left hand turn was the food table. Drinks (coke, water, juice) on the right and food straight in front. There was also hot water and a microwave oven, and a fridge.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
The home straight
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And the timing mat and timing tent at the end. I think the clear plastic wall on the timing tent was to keep the concrete dust off the equipment.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Concrete dust on my leftover food

 

So what’s next?

It has now been six weeks since the race and to be honest, I’m really struggling for motivation.  It turns out that my shin injury from the Thames Ring 250 is still not 100 percent heeled.  It didn’t cause any problems during the race but has been a little uncomfortable since, and I don’t think I will ever be able to race-walk properly again (pulling my toes up as my foot hits the ground in order to lengthen my stride).  The specialist has said he could potentially operate to repair the damaged tendon but because of the blood clots I suffered as a result of the original injury, there is added risk in doing that.

This means that walking sub 24 hour 100 mile races will be difficult but potentially still achievable.  Given time, the tendon may heel itself but in the meantime I think perhaps some non-competitive adventures, or longer races where speed isn’t so essential, may be my best option.  Many of the running ultramarathons |I have done in the past have cut-off times for every ten to 20 miles which require a reasonably quick walking pace in the early stages of the race and I don’t know that they will be possible this year either.

So right at the moment, I don’t really know what’s next – but watch this space because I’m sure that there will be something.